The Mindful Firefighter

By Hersch Wilson
Reprinted from the NVFC Firefighter Strong newsletter

One of the regular tasks we do on any fire department is wash trucks. It is a point of pride to have clean vehicles. As a firefighter, in doing so, I have a choice every Saturday morning. I can think that this is a tedious and ridiculous task — the trucks will just become dirty over a week of calls. I can be on autopilot: not really present but just caught up in a million different worries, not even aware of what I am doing.

Or I can be mindful; I can realize that all over the country, firefighters are washing trucks and I am part of this great community. I can allow myself to become absorbed in the task, the sound of water, the camaraderie of the firehouse, the feel of a soapy sponge, the look of a truck as it reappears clean and shining. The choice is mine. Two paths can lead to boredom and even despair (the thought of doing this every Saturday for decades), or one decision leads to fulfillment. Just like in our “regular” lives, full of mundane and sometimes absurd tasks, we can practice mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” ─

The gist of this article is that no matter the past, no matter the difficulties that the universe has in store for us, we can adopt a mindset — a way of thinking — that helps us stay calmer and be in the present.

If I’ve learned anything as a firefighter, it’s that the present is all we have. Stuff happens, the universe doesn’t care about our plans, the future isn’t a promise.

A story to illustrate:

A Buddhist monk was being chased by a tiger through the forest. He came to a cliff with a long vine hanging down into the valley below. He grabbed the vine and began furiously climbing down. Looking up, he noticed that the tiger was climbing down after him. He started to move quickly, and then he looked down. There below was a python, the largest he’d ever seen, wrapped around the vine staring at him. So above him was the tiger and below was the python. Stressed, he glanced to the side, and there he saw hanging from the vine was a big red strawberry. He paused for a second and then ate it and enjoyed it.

The tiger is our ruminating about the past, the python is our worrying about the future, and the strawberry is the present. The present can be today, or it can be a singular moment, the sweetness of a strawberry, the gloriousness of a smile. The goal is no matter the past or the future, to enjoy the “nowness” of that strawberry.

The past is over. We can only learn from it. The future is out of our control. This moment is all we are guaranteed.

Being mindful is not merely a practice for monks and the spiritually inclined; it offers real-world benefits to help us stay calm and reduce stress.

How Mindfulness Reduces Stress

Mindfulness can help us reduce stress in a few ways.

  1. Often we are on mental “auto-pilot.” The tigers and the pythons are loose in our brains, and we are reacting to them without really thinking about them. Hitting the mindful pause button allows us to put them in perspective.
  2. When we pause, even if only for a moment, we tend not to just react. We can consider alternatives to how we want to respond rather than responding automatically.
  3. We are more self-aware. When we take that moment to be mindful, we are in touch with our bodies and notice where stress hits us.
  4. When we are mindful, we tend not to overreact. We can better keep our perspective and respond to problems more creatively.

Practicing Mindfulness

Becoming more mindful takes practice, just like any new habit, from learning how to operate a new pumper to practicing your golf swing (which can be a very mindful activity). Here are a couple ways to start.

The gold standard, of course, is carving out regular time daily to meditate, even if for 10 minutes a day. It is a valuable and worthwhile practice that can help calm your mind, reduce stress, and help you keep perspective. There are a variety of resources available online to help you start a meditation practice.

The Mindful Walk
Turn off your smartphone (leave your pager on!) and take a walk. In Zen practice, walking meditation is called Kinhin. Focus on your breathing, on being outdoors, on the sky, and how your body feels as it moves. Don’t plan your day or use this time to worry; just walk and focus on the rhythm of your walking and breathing.

When You’re Stressed…
Learn to Step Away.
Although there are significant problems that we need to deal with, often what causes us stress are minor things: a petty argument with a sibling, being stuck in traffic, responding to the same address for the fifth time for a false alarm. Before we get hooked, before our stress level starts to rise, learn to step away. It can actually be physically stepping away. For example, when a heated argument is beginning at a scene, it is often best to step away and calm down. Or it can mentally be stepping away, being mindful of the situation: does this situation really call for me to get upset? It is surprising how often — when we practice a little mindfulness — the answer is “no.”

In both situations, whether physically or mentally stepping away, the next step is to focus on your breathing. This is a relaxation exercise. Stand up or sit up straight and take six deep and slow breaths: It’s called square breathing. Two seconds in, two seconds holding the breath in, two seconds out, and two seconds hold, and repeat. Soon, after a little practice, taking that first breath will begin to relax you. Your shoulders will relax, the anxiety in your chest will diminish, and you will calm down.

A Final Note

By its very nature, firefighting teaches mindfulness. Think about how many times you’ve been in a non-fire situation where people are upset, going a little crazy (maybe at a family gathering). And we think to ourselves, there is nothing here to be upset about: everyone is alive, no one is hurt, why go crazy? That is a mindful moment brought to you by your experience of being a firefighter. Because we see what we see, it puts everything else in perspective. Because we see what we see, 90% of the time we know we can make a choice to stay calm. That’s being mindful.

The payoff of being calm and mindful is the strawberry; all those beautiful moments in life, that if we don’t slow down, we’ll miss. And that is a real tragedy. So be brave, be kind, fight fires, and be mindful!

Hersch Wilson is the assistant chief with Hondo Volunteer Fire and Rescue in Santa Fe County, NM. He has been with the department since 1987. In his “other life” he is a writer and a soccer coach. Visit him at or on Facebook at ‘Hersch Wilson-Firefighter.’